What are these felt boots you see for sale everywhere in Moscow? And what was Peter the Great’s favorite cure for a hangover? The answer is the same to both questions: valenki. From the Russian word meaning “made from felt,” valenki, the Russian answer to Australian Uggs, are ecologically sound, felted sheep wool — strips of wool are dipped into soap, then hot water and molded, not woven into shape — they are the life-enhancing, possibly life saving (see below) leg-warmer.
STYLE RUS Handmade valenki start as a huge sock made of rolled wool and are dipped in the banya bath to shrink to size. Then they are placed over a mold, beaten into shape with a stick and left to dry by the fire. They are very soft, yet incredibly durable. Worn by adults and children alike, in every kind of weather, including snow as long as it’s crispy. Overshoe galoshes keep the valenki dry in wetter weather. Valenki keep feet warm to 40 degrees below zero Celcius. The style may be rustic, but as one valenki-maker advertises, “the colder it gets, the less stupid you feel.”
Commercially-made valenki are standard issue to police and the military. They are purported to be one of the reasons Russian soldiers survived the Napoleonic War and World War II—European leather boots are inferior insulators against the brutal Russian cold. Russian expeditions to the Arctic North would not have been as successful without toe-saving Valenki.
Not only are they warm, but like honey, and the banya they are bathed in, valeniki are therapeutic. The energy of the wool has healing properties and the unwoven nature of the fibers provides a micro massage. (Beating them into shape with the stick would be therapeutic as well, I think.)
Wool was an easily-found commodity for people in the village, but valenki are so durable, families often shared a single pair for the entire household. Valenki were worn by the aristocracy as well, from Peter the Great to Nicholas II. (They each got their own pair.) The longer you wear them, the better they get; valenki were often passed down from one generation to the next.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, twenty-five per cent of the factories and many of the valshikialya, the traditional craftspeople who made valenki, closed up shop. It’s difficult for me to imagine Hermes-carrying Moskovites wearing such a traditional item, but in recent years valenki have become more popular, appearing on runways and in fashion magazines.
Moscow artist Olga Chernikova produces a couple hundred pair of handmade boots a year and regularly sells out. Like the resurgence of Russian chocolate made for the Russian palate, the simple enduring icon of Russian culture is gaining in popularity.
You can buy valenki online at www.rusclothing.com. Eltati Travel is planning a trip to the Valenki Museum and neighboring Valenki store--can you imagine?--on Sunday December 13th, if you are in Moscow, be sure to sign up for the trip. By some weird kismit a friend in San Francisco just asked me about valenki, she linked a website, akaculture.com where I grabbed this great photo. If I see anyone wearing Valenki on Tversykaya Boulvard, I'll let you know, and I'll try to sneak a photo.
This photo from akaculture.com, and these valenki are available there.